Barlaston Hall, in the Trent valley south of Stoke-on-Trent, is now a very desirable residence, but until Marcus Binney and his colleagues at SAVE Britain’s Heritage became involved in the early 1980s there was every chance that the house would fall down before it could be knocked down.
SAVE Britain’s Heritage arose from the European Architectural Heritage Year project in 1975, and has an impressive track record in making a difference to the fate of British historic buildings, particularly when there’s a need to break an impasse.
As Marcus Binney relates in Our Vanishing Heritage (Arlington 1984), the group took up the challenge to buy the wrecked house for £1, in order to take control of and release funds for a seemingly intractable conservation problem.
Barlaston Hall was built for a Leek attorney, Thomas Mills, on a virgin site next to Barlaston parish church in the period 1756-8.
It’s generally agreed, despite the lack of documentary evidence, that the house is the work of Sir Robert Taylor (1714-88). The distinctive octagonal and diamond glazing bars are his signature, for instance, though he probably delegated on-site oversight to a local builder, perhaps Charles Cope Trubshaw who rebuilt the nave of Barlaston parish church in 1762.
The house is designed in the Palladian manner, of brick with stone dressings, with the principal piano nobile storey sitting on a stone-built “rustic” floor but without the customary giant portico or side pavilions. The rectangular plan is varied by projecting bays – rectangular on the east entrance front, three-sided on the north and south sides and on the west, garden front an elliptical bay reached by an imposing curved double stair.
The interior planning is clever and compact. The walls of the central stair-hall carry all the chimney-flues, so that each of the surrounding principal rooms has maximum light.
The plasterwork is fine, particularly the rococo overmantels of the north and south rooms, rich with scrollwork, grapes and vines, and the Chinese Chippendale staircase is innovative, cantilevered with wrought-iron bars in zigzag formation concealed within the treads.
As a result of a rumoured comment by either the Duke of Sutherland (“damned ugly”) or his Duchess (“vulgar”), it was enveloped in stucco until, during the Second World War, it was stripped back to the brickwork to deprive enemy pilots of a landmark leading to nearby industry.
Thomas Mills’ successors lived at Barlaston until 1868, after which they let it to a succession of tenants, and eventually tried unsuccessfully to sell it shortly before the First World War.
Between the wars the house was used as a diocesan retreat until Josiah Wedgwood & Sons purchased the estate in order to relocate its factory from Etruria in 1937.
For a time after the Second World War the Wedgwood Memorial College occupied Barlaston Hall until dry rot forced a move to other premises in the village in 1949.
Thereafter the building was steadily neglected, and when the National Coal Board proposed mining beneath it in 1968 it had become a dangerous eyesore, standing across a fault in an area that was expected to sink by up to forty feet over a period of years.
The Wedgwood company desperately wanted to be rid of the building, which was listed Grade I as a result of a conservation campaign led by SAVE Britain’s Heritage. When SAVE took it on in 1981 the house required a new roof as well as stabilisation against subsidence before the damp and derelict interior could be restored.
In 1992 the weatherproof, structurally sound shell was sold to James and Carol Hall for £300,000 for restoration as a single dwelling. They calculated on spending an equivalent amount alongside an English Heritage grant of £269,342 as a 75% contribution to the restoration of the rococo plasterwork, the staircase and joinery.
By 2003 the Halls were fully in residence and able to show the house to groups of interested members of the public.
The house was once again offered for sale in 2015.